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Hard Times: 1920-1940

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Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado

As the “Roaring Twenties” dawned, times were not good for many of Colorado’s citizens. The post-war boom ended in a major recession during late 1919. The year 1920 was a continuation of economic insecurity for farmers, miners and manufacturers. The farm industry was particularly hard hit, due to falling prices for wheat, cotton, sugar beets, cattle and hogs. Suddenly, the supplier to the world was no longer needed, and as priced plummeted, marginal farmers were wiped out. The situation was particularly difficult on the eastern plains, where marginal farming was common. Dryland farming was normal practice on the prairies from 1910 to 1930. Moisture was limited, erosion was heavy, and life was hard. Nevertheless, farmers cultivated wheat on these lands. High prices were incentives, and luckily, the war years were relatively moist. These conditions lulled homesteaders into a sense of security. As World War I peaked, so did prices. [1]

Wheat, in 1918, selling for $2.02 a bushel was, by 1921, priced at 76 cents. Dryland farmers found that their costs exceeded profits. Tenant farming rose. In 1920, 23 percent of Colorado’s farmers were tenants, but by 1930 34.5 percent were renters. This trend continued well into the 1930’s. Due to adverse weather, more and more tenants were driven off their land. [7] One new farm relief concept came from North Dakota. The Non-Partisan League was formed to help promote cooperative marketing, state-run warehouses and other ideas that would assist farmers in avoiding “middlemen” and pass subsequent savings on to the consumer. From these efforts came the Colorado League, which attempted to get the state legislature to pass laws benefiting farmers, most particularly some kind of act making cooperative marketing legal. The Cooperative Marketing Act of 1923 provided that farmers could form their own coop stores, warehouses and other facilities to provide direct sales to retail buyers. An immediate result of this act was the creation, in 1923, of the Del Norte Potato Grower’s Cooperative Association and the Monte Vista Potato Growers Cooperative Association. These groups, among others, were later formed into the Colorado Potato Growers Exchange. They directly marketed San Luis Valley potatoes to stores and wholesalers. The cooperative built potato cellars, had their own sales offices, and sold vegetables under various brand names, all stamped on their burlap bags. These ventures lasted to the present. Supermarkets still carry San Luis Valley cooperative potatoes as identified by the trademark. [8] Along the Arkansas River, in Fremont County, the fruit industry lost most of its economic force. Between 1920 and 1940, the number of apple trees fell from 211,337 to 75,073. This attrition was due both to old age of the trees and very low prices for fruit. [9] Cattle prices also dropped. South Park, the San Luis Valley, and the far eastern plains saw reductions in herds. Pricing and a continued lack of forage did considerable damage to beef production.

A never-ending problem in the West was water. Irrigation projects were common in Colorado from the 1850’s well into the early 1900’s. These usually consisted of simple ditches built to move water from one place to another. However, water resources were finite, and by the 1920’s, it was evident that the continual fight over water rights had to be solved. Bureau of Reclamation projects dating from 1902 helped preserve western water, as did privately funded reservoirs and canals. Private projects were often supplanted, in the late 1890’s, by publically funded construction. Counties helped build dam sites. Custer County Reservoir was built to hold 4.25 million cubic feet of water, while the Apishapa Reservoir, located in Metote Canyon, held 20,000,000 cubic feet. Both were completed in 1892 and represented the beginnings of a unified water policy in southeast Colorado. [10] The Reclamation Service’s creation in 1902, furthered water conservation. Interestingly, there were no major Reclamation projects in southeastern Colorado early; rather, they were built on the western slope along the Colorado River and other major waterways. Nonetheless, Federal involvement in water was assured, and as the 1920’s wore on, Colorado and other western states were greatly influenced by Federal policy. The biggest battle was over allocation of Colorado’s limited water. After considerable debate and discussion, Colorado joined with seven other western states and signed the Colorado River Compact in 1929. By this document, downstream states like Arizona (and Mexico) were given a share of western Colorado’s water resources. The eastern plains also found their water allocated. Nebraska and Colorado agreed to share the South Platte River in 1925.

Ironically, while water was being discussed during the early 1920’s, the Arkansas River became a killer. In 1921, unusual spring runoff and heavy thunderstorms created a flood that hit Pueblo with force. On June 3, 1921, the river overran its banks at Pueblo and swept away some 600 houses, killed over 100 persons, and inflicted $19,000,000 damage to the city. The Pueblo flood shocked the entire state. Governor Oliver H. Shoup called a special session of the legislature in 1922, to discuss flood control. The Arkansas River, incidentally, was a source of controversy dating back to 1902, when Kansas and Colorado fought over water rights. In 1907, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the two states could voluntarily work out water compacts. From this early precedent, came the 1929 Colorado River compact and the Caddoa Project in Kansas. [12] The Arkansas Valley was in some disrepute with the rest of Colorado. Despite a long tradition of water issues on the Arkansas River, the citizens of Las Animas, Pueblo and El Paso Counties had steadfastly refused to vote for a bond issue to build a Denver-proposed tunnel through the Continental Divide for water control purposes. Bonds were consistently defeated by the votes of these southern counties on the basis that it would not benefit them. The 1921 flood changed things. Now, a two-fold package was presented, including Pueblo flood control and a tunnel in the northern Rockies for a railroad and water pipeline. Pueblo’s citizens were not happy, for the Arkansas Valley was the mainline of the Rio Grande Railroad, and this might be lost by a new tunnel, but that was outweighed by fears of more flooding. [13] In April 1922, both the Pueblo Flood Conservancy and the Moffat Tunnel Bills were introduced in the state legislature. They were tied together, and for Pueblo to have flood protection, it would have to help the Moffat Tunnel. El Paso, Fremont, Pueblo and Las Animas Counties’ representatives gave in, and both bills passed. Pueblo got a district with which to tax property owners, and with the proceeds build levees, dikes and other flood control devices. Denver and the northern Rockies got the Moffat Tunnel. Pueblo was probably the loser in this battle, but, on the other hand, there have been no recurrences of the 1921 disaster. [14]

The 1920’s in Colorado was also a period of hatred, prejudice and racism. As hard times deepened, more middle and lower class workers became unemployed. Money was tight, jobs were few, agriculture was failing, and scapegoats were needed. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) became a powerful force in Colorado politics at this time. The KKK came out of Georgia during the 1912-1918 era, and it gained considerable strength during the “Red Scare” of 1919. Colorado was a good breeding ground for the KKK because of a fairly large ethnic population and several industrial cities. Pueblo was a major contributor of KKK members who spouted patriotism, “Americanism,” racism and bigotry. Their targets were minorities like Blacks (there were few in Colorado at this time), Spanish-Americans, Italians, southern Europeans, Jews, Catholics and Orientals. Trinidad, Walsenburg, Aguilar and other coal towns were prime candidates for Klan activities. Southeastern Colorado may have seen a few cross burnings, some threats against minorities, and other incidents, but there were no deaths or injuries due to KKK activities. Italian newspapers in Trinidad, such as La Voratore Italiano and the Corriere de Trinidad successfully defended their communities against the KKK. Because there was a large Spanish-American population in the San Luis Valley, the KKK did not do well. Canon City saw a fair amount of KKK activity, but there were not very many minorities living there. Local Catholics and Jews took the brunt of KKK hatred. [15] So powerful was the KKK in Denver and the Front Range, that in 1924 these areas elected Clarence J. Morley governor. This Klan-backed executive was a Klan sympathizer, as were most members of the House of Representatives in Colorado’s legislature. All kinds of bills were introduced, from banning wine for use in Catholic church services to the abolition of parochial schools. Colorado’s Senate was the only body that kept these efforts from becoming law. The sole accomplishment of the Morley administration was abolition of the office of Horseshoe Inspector. Morley was removed from office in the 1926 election, and the Klan’s political influence quickly diminished. [16]

The imposition of Prohibition in 1919 created new problems. Not only did those less than honest about “being dry” demand liquor, but there were many people willing to supply the need. A large bootlegging industry grew up in the metropolitan areas of Colorado. Denver and Pueblo were the two biggest sources of illegal booze. As in Chicago, gangland-style crime became a serious matter. There were hijackings, kidnappings and murders over who was going to control the liquor trade. The Trinidad-Walsenburg area was also the location of numerous stills. Law enforcement officials, who tried raiding the hills west of Trinidad, found themselves consistently “shut off” by the locals. Such illegal moonshine trade continued for many years and was reportedly still popular into the 1950s. [17]

Gangland crime was persistent during the late 1920’s into the 1930’s. War broke out when Pueblo rumrunners tried to invade Denver. February 1931, saw exchanges between these forces, with death threats if the Pueblo invasion did not stop. Undeterred, Pete Carlino continued to “muscle in,” and in the best Chicago-style, he was machine-gunned while standing in front of a local Pueblo garage. The assassins, who were in a moving car, missed their target and Carlino was untouched. [18] But he was a marked man. One of his “boys” was kidnapped, his home was bombed, his brother was killed and numerous threats were made against him. Local authorities tried to “get” Carlino, by claiming that he had burned his own house for the insurance. As this was studied, so was the possibility of his deportation to Italy. In September 1931, Carlino’s body was found along a roadside near Pueblo, ending that city’s gangland attempt to take over Denver. Joe Roma, of Denver, emerged as Colorado’s new leader. He survived until 1933, when he was “rubbed out” by rivals while sitting at home playing his mandolin. [19] As it happened, the Prohibition experiment ended during 1933, a total failure. Denver, for example, repealed local anti-liquor ordinances in July of that year. Pueblo and other southeast Colorado communities followed suit. By December 1933, national prohibition was repealed.

Southeastern Colorado was also the scene of one of the most sensational crimes of the decade. On May 23, 1928, five men walked into the First National Bank at Lamar and took $250,000. They killed bank President Amos N. Parrish and his son John. Two tellers were abducted and held as hostages. Ralph Fleagle was identified as the gang leader and the chase was on. Sheriffs Deputies found one teller left wandering along a road about four miles from Lamar, but the other hostage was found dead near Liberal, Kansas, on June 13, 1928. During the robbery, one of the bandits, Howard L. Royston, was wounded and sought medical attention. Dr. W. W. Wineinger of Dighton, Kansas was forced to provide help and then he was shot in an execution-style slaying. His body was found on May 28 near Garden City, Kansas. This trail of bodies, abandoned cars and fingerprints finally led police officers to Kankakee, Illinois where, in August 1929, Ralph Fleagle was captured. Fleagle confessed and implicated his brother, along with two others. [20] Fleagle and his men were tried at Lamar in October 1929, and they were all found guilty of murder. After several appeals, Ralph Fleagle was hanged at Canon City on July 12, 1930, followed by George J. Abshier and Howard Royston later in July. Jake Fleagle was killed in September 1930 during a gunfight, while resisting arrest at Branson, Missouri. The robbery and murders at Lamar made a deep impression on the region and remain, to this day, one of the most dramatic events in the history of Prowers County. [21]

The thirties was a period of severe depression in Colorado and the nation. Farm prices, declining from 1920 on, went ever lower. Farmers, in turn, planted more and more wheat, beans, beets, corn and other staples. This drove prices down further, for there were huge surpluses. Desperation saw more planting and grazing, causing serious damage to fragile soils. Then, in 1929, the American economy totally collapsed. The fall of the stockmarket in October of that year precipitated the worst economic dislocation in U.S. history. Not only were millions jobless as factories shut down, but industry found itself facing bankruptcy. Farmers, suffering from overproduction, saw prices go from $2.02 a bushel for wheat in 1918, to 76 cents in 1921, to 37 cents in 1932. Cost of production usually exceeded sale prices. Crops were left to rot in the ground rather than lose. Potatoes, a mainstay in the San Luis Valley, were selling for 24 cents, while hogs went for $3.10 each. Fruit growers sold their apples for 42 cents a bushel. It cost more to ship them to Denver than they could be sold for. [22] Coal production dropped by one-half in 1932, and miners were laid off en masse. All business suffered, but mining and agriculture took the worst beating in southeast Colorado. Then, to make matters worse, nature turned against humanity. Drought gripped the region; what little soil moisture there was dried up. Strong winds blew topsoil across the plains. In a matter of two years, much of eastern Colorado was a desert. Soil blew against buildings, burying them in drifts. Cattle were covered in shifting sands, fences disappeared under dunes, and the plains were reduced to Stephen Long’s famous “Great American Desert.” April 14, 1935 saw the biggest dust storm ever. “Black Sunday” found a storm raging across southeastern Colorado into Kansas with dust billowing several miles high. Thousands of travelers were stranded, as in a blizzard. Several deaths due to suffocation were recorded. The sky was black for twenty-four hours; the sun was blotted out. “Black Sunday” was such a serious disaster that the Red Cross set up hospitals and relief stations to help victims of this dust storm. Property damage done by blowing dust was extensive. Not only were farms wiped out, but towns and cities suffered from dust fallout. [23] The term “Dust Bowl” was coined by Robert Geiger, an Associated Press reporter from Denver, who after viewing the destruction of the plains, wrote about it. The Soil Conservation Service declared that southeast Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, western Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle and western Texas were subject to severe wind erosion, and this became the “Dust Bowl.” Baca County was the hardest hit area in southeastern Colorado.

As Depression settled deeper into the national economy, President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, declared that prosperity was “just around the corner.” All the nation had to do was let the “recession” run its course and the capitalist system would revive itself. Yet the economy got worse, the Dust Bowl became more devastating, and private relief funds ran out. Destitute men and women roamed the streets literally begging for food. Unemployment reached nearly 20 percent of the work force, and despite cries for help, the Federal Government maintained that private business would solve the problem. [25] The elections of 1932 changed the situation. In that year Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected President. Roosevelt had definite ideas about how the Depression should be handled. First, by “priming the pump” Federal dollars would be used to stimulate a devastated economy. Deficit spending by the Federal Government provided massive amounts of money to help industry, farmers and businessmen alike. To provide a conduit for this aid, Roosevelt created a myriad of agencies to oversee Federal help programs. Of primary interest to residents of southeastern Colorado, were the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Work Projects Administration (WPA), the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) [actually Hoover’s idea], the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA). Two programs in what Roosevelt called “The New Deal” that most benefited southeast Colorado were the AAA, which paid farmers to reduce crop production, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that gave invaluable labor to the Forest Service by constructing trails, roads, park sites and other improvements within national forests. The CCC employed thousands of youths to build roads and other improvements, while paying them $30 a month, a generous sum in the midst of the Depression. [26]

The Roosevelt administration also stabilized gold prices at $35.00 per ounce and required governmental purchase of all gold produced. This caused a resurgence of precious mineral operations in Lake, Park and Teller Counties. Lake County’s lead and zinc production slipped steadily from 1920 to 1930, and mining around Leadville was all but dead during the early 1930’s. With gold prices stable by 1934. extraction increased considerably. Teller County also revived, and by 1935, production of Cripple Creek District’s mines equalled $4.5 million. The Golden Cycle Mill at Colorado Springs processed over 500,000 tons of ore in that same year. South Park saw a major revival of gold mining during the 1930’s. Production went from a paltry $39,719 in 1927, to $3,001,074 in 1934. The Mosquito Creek District provided most of this while Fairplay saw considerable dredging activity. The South Park Dredging Company built and then ran a 510-foot dredge boat along the South Platte River between 1922 and 1952, producing considerable amounts of placer gold while tearing up the river bottom. Revived mining helped with capital improvements. In 1939, Cripple Creek’s numerous mines were drained by completion of the six-mile Carlton Tunnel. Excess water, for irrigation, went to the eastern plains by way of the Arkansas River. Leadville’s mines were to be drained by the Leadville Drainage Tunnel, begun in 1943. However, due to engineering problems, it was not finished until 1951. This water was also dumped into the Arkansas River and used for downstream irrigation. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) offered employment and also built public buildings like post offices, schools and city halls. For instance, the town halls of Alamosa and Center were WPA built, while the bandshell and bridge at Pueblo’s old Mineral Palace Park were WPA projects. Water-related construction was also part of the WPA/CWA concept. The Big Thompson Project in northern Colorado began at this time. The Twin Lakes Tunnel, bringing water from near Leadville to the Arkansas Valley, was financed with a 1930’s RFC loan of $1.25 million. [27]

The Depression created the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. This legislation provided management of the Public Domain for the first time. Grazing districts were set up to control the numbers of domestic animals allowed on public lands. In this way, it was hoped that damage to the land would be reduced. Additionally, homesteading was severely limited. For all practical purposes, classic disposal of the public domain ended in 1934. Considering the condition of the plains at the time, this legislation went a long way to help stop degradation of remaining Federal lands. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Grazing Service, established in 1934, oversaw use of the public domain and administered these various grazing districts. The old General Land Office (GLO) continued to manage disposal of the public lands, but this was greatly limited by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order of 1934, withdrawing all Federal lands west of the 100th Meridian from homesteading. Farrington Carpenter, of Hayden, Colorado was named the Grazing Service’s first Director, and under him a new agency took shape. In 1946, the GLO and Grazing Service were merged to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which remains the primary Federal land management agency in the United States. The newly created BLM was heavily involved in range management and land disposal, but as time went along, the agency emerged as a multiple-use, land-based bureau with the intent of balanced resource management. [28]

The New Deal saw new national legislation that benefited the general public. Social Security was created to help people in retirement while the Old Age Pension Amendment, passed in Colorado during 1927, was beefed up in the 1930’s by increasing state tax revenues. In this way, pensioners were assured a minimum income by the state. By the end of 1938, 34,654 Coloradans were listed on the pension rolls. [29] The Depression Era was also a time of labor unrest. Under considerable pressure from the Roosevelt administration, industry was forced to recognize unionism throughout the country. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) provided a vehicle for ending the practices of blacklisting, lock outs, and other management abuses. The government directed that industries refusing to help unions would not be given Federal assistance. Under this threat, Colorado Fuel and Iron recognized the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1933 and a collective bargaining contract was written. Other industries followed suit, and while union activity in Colorado has never been strong, southeast Colorado saw the second, yet most powerful, local union victory. Despite the worst Depression in history, there were some paradoxial events. Schools actually benefited from hard times, for as the nonworking population grew, so did its demand for education. Junior colleges were established to provide localized educational experiences from the mid-1930’s on. In 1925, a college had been established at Trinidad, while Alamosa got Adams State College during that same year. Adams State was a teacher-training facility, the third in the state. Pueblo Junior College opened its doors in 1933 and served the Arkansas River Valley all the way west to Leadville. Lamar Junior College was established in 1936 and assured higher education for the lower Arkansas region. [30]

Another area that did not suffer as deeply during the Depression years was transportation. A newly emerging air industry expanded during the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s. Mail service was a key revenue producer; a few daring souls rode as passengers. As happened with the Transcontinental Railroad, the first coast-to-coast air service went by way of Cheyenne, Wyoming because the mountains were much lower in that state. From Cheyenne, air service was established to Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. From Pueblo, airlines could go south to El Paso or east to St. Louis. Despite the promise of becoming Colorado’s main air port, Pueblo’s aviation dreams never materialized. Denver, instead, grew as the hub of western air travel. When pressurized planes came into general service, the mountains were no longer a barrier. Both Cheyenne and Pueblo lost their respective positions to Denver. [31]

Rail service also underwent major changes during the 1930’s and on into the 1940’s. The Burlington Railroad introduced, in 1934, a revolutionary new train called the “Zephyr.” These units were diesel powered (a serious omen for the coal industry) and consisted of “streamlined” lightweight cars that provided new luxury and comfort. The Burlington streamliner brought a whole new dimension to rail travel, and other railroads soon followed, hoping to attract travelers in vast numbers. Southeastern Colorado, by the late 1930’s saw the Santa Fe running an incredibly luxurious train, the Super Chief, from Chicago to Los Angeles by way of Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. The Missouri Pacific, in 1948, began the streamlined Colorado Eagle from St. Louis to Pueblo and then north to Denver on Rio Grande trackage. The Burlington introduced the Texas Zephyr in 1930, providing service from Denver to Houston by way of Pueblo and Trinidad. The Denver and Rio Grande, in bankruptcy during the 1930’s, was hard pressed to even maintain service. Utterly ancient equipment ran from Denver to Salt Lake City through Pueblo and Leadville. Traffic was light and passengers few. Yet, by the late 1940’s the Rio Grande was on a solid financial footing again, and upgraded equipment was forthcoming. The Pueblo-Arkansas River line became secondary with the absorption of the old “Moffat Road” in 1947, for the Moffat Tunnel/Dotsero cut-off route was used for most passenger service. [32] Nevertheless, the Rio Grande, in the early 1950’s, provided passenger service to Pueblo and the upper Arkansas towns with streamlined equipment. The Royal Gorge followed the Rio Grande’s historic mainline route to Leadville and then on to Salt Lake City. The train used diesel power, and had a diner and sleeper, and even boasted a a Vista-Dome from which to view the Royal Gorge. This service was discontinued in 1967.

The Depression period saw dramatic changes in the economic and political lifestyle of southeastern Colorado. Federal involvement in the area increased, as did dependence upon Federal aid. The economy perked up slightly during the mid-1930’s, but was declining by the end of the decade. Again, as in 1914, American farmers and industry were fortunate when war broke out in Europe. Germany invaded Poland early in September 1939, precipitating a world crisis. Great Britain and France declared war on the Germans, and World War II began. As in the first World War, the United States remained neutral, but the Roosevelt administration supplied arms, ships and food to the British who were blockaded by Germany. America’s economy revived from the war-induced shortages. Industrial production increased, while farm prices went up at an amazing rate. The war saved Colorado’s economy, while providing employment for thousands of destitute citizens. Southeast Colorado was about to experience some quite interesting changes during the decade of the 1940’s.